There is a lot that you can point to as being wrong with baseball, but on July 24th, when Ken Griffey Jr. is finally enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, counting the Kid among the greatest to ever play the game will not be one of them.
No matter who you rooted for, if you grew up in the 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr. tends to be the one player everybody can agree on. That swing, the Air Griffey Max sneakers, the lack of steroid use allegations compared to other players of his generation and, of course, the famous 1989 Upper Deck rookie card; Griffey’s marketing of himself and his likeness was maybe only second to the GOAT of automatically making anything he attached his name to cool, Michael Jordan (you probably ate Ball Park Franks and and wore Hanes Underwear from 1992 to about 1998 thanks to MJ).
Plenty has been written about the Griffey’s card, from looking at its enduring legacy to profiling a guy who owns over 400 of them. As an eight-year-old the year the card came out, I was at the exact age where acquiring one became the center of my universe. That shot of him with his turtleneck popping out from his uniform, a gold necklace around his neck, the bat on his shoulder and that youthful smile serves as a reminder of the things I liked about being young. It is probably the first thing a certain demographic (the 30-to-40-year-old-crowd) of baseball fans think of when they hear his name, even before his play. A lot of people feel that way about Griffey’s rookie card, possibly the last great baseball card that people really cared about before those little pieces of cardboard became worthless trinkets your parents possibly stored in the attic in hopes that, like the baseball card they collected as kids, they’ll someday spike in value again.
Another part of Griffey’s legacy that doesn’t get talked about enough is his 1994 Super Nintendo game Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. One of the strangest sports video games of its time.
Doesn’t look that weird, right? It’s 1994, not 2016; you don’t get all of today’s crazy features that make it look like you’re actually controlling a real live baseball game on your television. You don’t even get real players. What you do get, and whether Griffey himself had any idea of this or not, is an interesting assortment of fictional players named after real punks, science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick, and characters from Cheers.
March of 1994 saw the release of two somewhat similar Super Nintendo baseball games: Griffey’s game, and MLBPA Baseball. While the latter featured actual players and stats thanks to a licensing agreement with the players union, it didn’t feature the names of teams or ballparks. Griffey’s game, programmed by Software Creations, who were best known for comic book tie-in games like The Tick, Silver Surfer, and Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge, had real teams and their stadiums, but not real players. It had stand-ins. The Baltimore Orioles had players that had similar stats to Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina, except their names paid tribute to the city’s favorite trash cinema son, John Waters: Mussina was “P. Flamingo” and Ripken came up to bat as “J. Waters.”
It’s hard to call Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball subversive, because it really wasn’t. When J. Marr walked up for the Montreal Expos, he didn’t do it to any songs from The Queen Is Dead, and the same goes for the players named Joey Ramone, Lux Interior or Johnny Rotten; no Ramones, Cramps or Sex Pistols were featured. Yet there’s something to be said for planting the seed, that maybe some kid in 1994 played Griffey’s game and really enjoyed playing as “L. Tolstoy” so much that when a book came across their desk with the Russian great’s name they were more inclined to pick it up and read it.
The game had presidents and Motown singers, A. Hepburn and M. Monroe played for the Cleveland Indians, and the Phillies were a weird mix of local landmarks (L.Bell) and Rocky characters. The players had batting stances similar to their real-life counterparts, and you learned who could crank home runs out, and that the one actual MLB player on the game, Griffey as himself, of course, was the best all-around character you could be. And whether or not the baseball superstar whose name was on the cover knew many of the pop culture references laced throughout his game has (to my knowledge) never been brought up in an interview with Griffey, the fact remains that one of the most exciting players of his generation helped put one of the strangest sports video games out into the world.